Sony's Docu-Style Camcorder Aims to Channel 16mm Film-Camera Usability, but the Real Story Is in the Optics
A camera system is only as good as its optics. That's long been one of the truisms of our profession as filmmakers and shooters. While computational photography in devices like the iPhone has obviated the need in many applications for finely crafted optics, for those of us working at the high end of film and television, the demand for high-performance lenses persists. More than ever, our images require superior optics to make full use of the latest-generation cameras with 4K and higher resolution.
The new Sony PXW-FS7 is a well-balanced, robustly featured camcorder with superb ergonomics. Compare this to the mind-numbing operational nightmare of DSLRs or previous Sony models like the out-of-kilter, asymmetrical EX1 or the button-festooned FS100. For sure, camera manufacturers are taking their time jettisoning the non-ergonomic rectangular box employed still today, most notably by Red and one or two other manufacturers. Truth is, the box shape is cheaper to design and manufacture. But forgoing this cost-saving conceit makes Sony’s newest model far more user-friendly. It's a joy to hold and caress. The company says the camera was designed from the outset as minimalist and streamlined for vérité-style shooting, mimicking the simple, easy operation of a 16mm film camera like the Aaton. I’m not sure I agree that Sony has succeeded completely, but more on this later.
Back to the future: Aaton cameras (inset) were the inspiration for Sony’s new FS7 4K vérité-style camcorder.
Rugged and Beautiful
First off, the hardened, battle-scarred documentary shooter can take great solace in the FS7’s robust construction. The body, constructed of magnesium, is thermally more stable than aluminum and about a third stronger and lighter. Effective heat dissipation, which ought to be of concern to every shooter, is particularly relevant in today’s processor-intensive cameras, which produce plenty of heat and plenty of noise, if that heat is not properly dissipated. The sensor and electronics at the heart of the FS7 are afforded expansive, heat-dissipating fins and a cooling fan to maintain a reasonable operating temperature that is conducive to producing very low-noise images.
While the FS7's body is well-protected against dirt and moisture penetration, an ongoing concern for some shooters is Sony’s proprietary E mount, a markedly less rugged lens-securing system than the de facto industry-standard PL type. If you're troubled by that, keep the crucial trade-off in mind: the E mount is much more versatile. It was designed explicitly to accommodate a wide range of optics, owing to its short 18mm back distance.
The E mount also allows for smooth iris settings in increments of hundredths of a stop. This contrasts with the cruder 1/8-stop increments in most popular multi-purpose lenses from Canon and others. Pro shooters should see a nice advantage, as Sony’s own E mount lenses eliminate the often-obvious stepping effect on-screen when opening and closing the iris mid-scene.
Still, the E mount is not particularly resistant to environmental hazards, and it also lacks sufficient robustness for some rigorous applications, like travel and nature documentaries, that tend to be physically rough on gear and also require heavy telephoto zoom lenses. In such cases, a solid lens support will be imperative to protect the E mount’s structural integrity.
Conservatively speaking, the FS7 exhibits a realistic sensitivity of ISO 2000. As an old film guy, my method for determining ISO is simple: I expose middle grey at 24fps and note the ISO film speed on my vintage Spectra Professional light meter. Keep in mind that the camera’s hypergamma 7 and 8 settings place middle grey at 33 and 40 respectively, and indeed one sees an obvious sweet spot at this ISO setting. FS7 shooters working with collaborators and a waveform may want to keep this handy reference in mind.
When pushed to ISO 4000, the new model exhibits little if any perceptible noise. The increased sensitivity simply moves the middle grey point up to reveal additional detail in the mid-tones. I used ISO 4000 to great advantage when shooting Paris at night, employing available light exclusively for Michael Tinholme’s romantic music video "La Mer."
The Sony PXW-FS7 captures very pleasing, noise-free images in remarkably low light. At ISO 2000, the ambient Paris streetlights provide an illusion of adequate exposure. Like most Sony models the FS7 features excellent built-in noise reduction. While additional noise reduction may be applied via a menu option, the effect can be excessive and lead to a noticeable loss of shadow detail.
Recording UHD to the internal XQD card and pushing the FS7’s capabilities to the maximum, I exploited a favorite technique of playing the angle and character of the street and car lights, placing these sources behind and slightly to the side of the talent to create the illusion of adequate exposure. Certainly with ultraspeed lenses I could have taken greater advantage of the camera’s higher frame rates. The F4 lens included with the FS7 kit is a tour de force in most ways, but it is also relatively slow, restricting me effectively to normal frame rates.
The cramped area around the XQD card slots makes removal of the cards awkward or impossible with gloved hands.
The FS7 4K camera offers many valuable features for the vérité-type shooter: When capturing HD, the EVF is overscanned to see invading objects like mic booms and errant cutters about to enter the image area. This is fundamental to effective camera operation! Keep in mind that because 4K utilizes the entire raster, this operational advantage is not available when shooting 4K (17:9).
The FS7 shares a great deal of technology from the F55, including XAVC recording and core accessories. Its menu array and interface is similarly deep and inscrutable—a legacy, perhaps, of Sony’s broadcast roots, but certainly not in keeping with the simplicity of a vérité-style camera.
Owing to the lack of a side LCD screen, the FS7 is not as fast-operating as, say, the ARRI Alexa, the Panasonic VariCam 35, or Sony's own F5. The use of the camera’s normal viewfinder for routine menu access is less than ideal.
In theory, the array of buttons covering the camera exterios should make run-and-gun shooting more efficient. But these buttons (at left) are far too exposed. The slow-and-quick button is particularly easy to inadvrtently press, resulting in unexpected and untimely changes in frame rate. The most critical buttons should be recessed and better-protected in an updated version of the camera.
Vérité cameras must by definition have good audio sections, and that’s surely the case in the FS7. The camera’s preamps and pots are very quiet and robustly constructed. The multi-interface shoe supports four-channel recording at 24 bits and 48 kHz. Beyond the standard stereo, two additional XLR inputs are provided via the optional XLE K2M accessory, thus providing four fully functional audio inputs, each with its own discrete level and input settings.
The FS7 features a built-in rear microphone for operator slating and logging takes. The logging track may be assigned to one of the two stereo channels, or to one of the four channels if using the optional accessory. I found the logging mic particularly useful for synchronizing double-system sound in post-production.
The FS7 4K camera supports use of smaller consumer batteries, which are convenient for run-and-gun shooting of docs and low-budget music videos.
The optional rear breakout box (b) supports the larger more professional Gold Mount or V-Lock batteries. As a side note for narrative filmmakers, the rear adapter is required for RAW output; internal recording is limited to XAVC, the most practical option for the majority of non-fiction and documentary projects.
Optics: The Real Story
Camera features aside, the compelling story behind Sony’s FS7 is the optics. Sony’s acquisition of Minolta and Konica in 2006 appears to have transformed the company into a state-of-the-art lens-maker capable of producing real optics, not just pieces of contoured glass with sophisticated processing behind them.
For several years, following the advent of virtually lensless camera systems like the iPhone, the trend has been towards computational photography, utilizing what might be called optics-free optics that transfer the task of precisely ground glass elements to enhanced software. This is why, dollar for dollar, most modestly priced camcorders with integrated lenses perform much better than similarly priced models with interchangeable optics; the fixed-lens models benefit from extensive in-camera processing to conceal and/or correct such common lens defects as barrel distortion, flare, softness to the corners and other woes.
The FS7’s 28–135mm F4 kit lens is the first high-performance Super 35mm zoom to be offered at such an economical price. It is not the typical inferior package lens! For years, kit lenses have been an embarrassment to the industry, as name-brand lens makers will often paste their names on poorly performing optics. These lenses serve merely as placeholders to maintain the artificial low price of the overall kit. Indeed one of the first things camera buyers did after acquiring their new pride and joy was 1) buy a larger battery to replace the underpowered OEM unit; and 2) spend another $10K or more on a proper, well-performing lens.
Employing precisely sculpted aspheric elements and special low-dispersion glass, the FS7 4K zoom represents a breakthrough in economical lens technology. Remarkably free of chromatic aberrations, the lens compares favorably with much pricier hand-built optics; its relatively slow F4 maximum aperture poses less of a challenge for shooters using camcorders like the FS7 that shoot virtually noise-free at ISO 2000 and above.
Sony’s breakthrough low-cost 28-135mm F4 zoom is a true 4K lens that maintains critical sharpness and contrast to the corners. The E-type zoom is not particularly fast but it is ideally configured and remarkably free of chromatic aberrations – the main reason lenses look cheap.
The integrated zoom motor is high torque and very strong. My review lens did not appear to be properly calibrated and continued to zoom long after the control rocker was released. Sony attributes this to an operational lag in the servo control. According to the company, this anomaly will be corrected, or at least ameliorated, in the latest shipping lenses and cameras.
Sony’s E mount 28–135m lens utilizes extensive on-board control of zoom and focus, which enables a constant F-stop throughout the zoom range along with close focus and images remarkably free of chromatic aberrations—the main reason cheap lenses look cheap. The downside of all this servo hocus-pocus, however, is a disconcerting operational lag. Unlike manual lenses, the FS7 zoom and focus dials lack a positive feel. The delayed tactile response is akin to the maddening oversteering condition found in old Pontiacs and Buicks, which surely took some getting used to—especially if your daily drive was a BMW.
Sony's Noble Intent
Sony wanted to produce a vérité-style camera that mimicked the easy operation and ergonomics of a Super 16mm film camera like the Aaton LTR. Sony does not quite achieve this elegance in the PXW-FS7. But the new model and lens are a serious, bold move in the right direction.